Rev. Dr. John Judson
August 27, 2017
This is one of the most beloved stories in all of scripture. It is one of those happy ending stories that we so desperately look for in a world that often does not have happy endings. Most of us know the story. There was a father with two sons.
The younger son turned out to be a jerk when he essentially told his father, “You are dead to me. Now give me everything I will inherit as if you were dead.” The father does so. The son then wastes it all in (and I love how the writer puts it) in dissolute living and finds himself feeding pigs. Which was about as low as a Jew could go. Knowing that his father treated his servants well he goes home hoping to be a servant. Along the way, he practices his speech of repentance. Before the son arrives however, the father sees him. Runs to him. Throws his arms around him, places a robe and ring on him and then throws a party for him. Happy ending…except that’s not the ending of the story. In fact, this a story without an ending at all. I say that because there is a second chapter to this story and it is the one of the older brother. And where this story will leave us after we are done is not with an ending but a question. That question is, will either of the sons love their father like their father loves them?
To understand this, we need to return to the older brother incident. I know that many of you here this morning associate with the older brother; the good brother; the dutiful brother. Yet please know that the older brother is as big a jerk as the younger. He is so because of the way he treats his father. When he returns home, sure he will be a bit irked, but he should have understood the commandment to honor your father and mother. So when he is invited in to the party he ought to have gone. Instead he attacks his father in public, before God and his guests. He accuses his father of treating him like a slave. He accuses his father of not caring for him even though he has been the perfect son. He accuses his father of never having given him anything. This is behavior beyond rudeness. The people listening to the story in the time of Jesus would have been appalled with this behavior. What makes it even worse is that it is all…wait for it…fake news. It is all a lie, because the father has given him everything.
What we need to do is to make sure that we hear the story as Jesus told it. In verse 12 Jesus makes it clear that the father divides the property between his sons. In other words, not only is the younger son given his property, but the older is given his as well. The older inherits before his father is dead, just like his younger brother. We know that this is true when in verse 31, the father says, “All that is mine is yours.” And essentially this is where the story ends. We do not know if either brother ever appreciates what has been done for them. We don’t know if either brother realizes the depth of the father’s love for them. We don’t know this because we don’t hear from either of the brothers again. We don’t know if the prodigal appreciates the party. We don’t know if the older brother appreciates being given everything. We don’t know if either will love the father as the father loves them. And thus, it is a story without an ending…until we write it.
Today, we complete our series of We Make the Road by Walking. We have walked from creation to new creation. We have walked through the Old and New Testaments. We have walked with the patriarchs and with the disciples. And at every turn we have had to ask ourselves the same question that they had to ask themselves, does God love us? This story without an ending reminds us of what we have learned on our walk, that God has given us everything; life, food, community, grace and salvation; that everything God has is ours. The question this morning is, do we really believe it and act like it? Do we live in gratitude? Do we let that love enfold us and change us? Do we believe it and let it transform us from head to toe? To draw this series to a close, I want to leave you with an image … a song … a reminder to take with you as you continue to walk. So sit back and watch: Our Father is waiting - Malcolm Gordon
God is waiting for us. God is running toward us. God is loving us. God has given us everything. My challenge to you on this day is to ask yourselves this question. Am I loving God like God loves me and showing that love in a life that loves others?
August 20, 2017
Rev. Dr. John Judson
Ezekiel 47:1-12; Revelation 22:1-7
They had trashed it. That was the only way to describe what I saw when I walked into the church manse. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, the manse is the church owned home in which the pastor lived. In times gone by most churches had manses because they could not afford to pay a pastor enough to own a home. My former congregation had a manse and it was located at the edge of the church parking lot. Cindy and I lived there twice, but when we finally were able to afford a home of our own, the manse sat empty…until one of our members asked if his son, daughter-in-law and grand-children could live there. The son was leaving the navy after more than ten years and was looking for a place to stay. The session was more than happy to let them live in the house. After maybe a year or so, they told us there was a problem with the disposal, something I could fix. So I went over to the hose, walked in and was stunned. The carpets had become a place of their dogs to soil. The wood corners of the doorframes had been eaten away. The children had painted on the walls with colored glue. And it looked as if it had never been cleaned. They had trashed the house, and now we had to decide if it was worth repairing. It was a heart-breaking moment.
This past week I have wondered if this is how God felt after Charlottesville? And actually not only about Charlottesville, but after the last several thousand years. God must daily look at creation and say, “They have trashed it. They have taken my marvelous creation and trashed it.” We have trashed it with racism, nationalism, tribalism, sexism, anti-Semitism and all the other isms. We have trashed it by hating and demeaning those who are different; who have different sexual orientations, different religious affiliations, different languages and different cultures. We have trashed it by enslaving other human beings, not only in the past but today. We have trashed it by refusing to ensure that all people have access to good education, clean water and a roof over their heads. We have trashed it by polluting our air and water. We have trashed it with trash…including that floating trash pile in the pacific larger than the state of Texas. We must wonder if God is heart-broken. We must wonder if God has given up on us and on this creation. Fortunately, while the answer to the first question is, God is broken hearted, the answer to the second is that God has never given up on us. We know this because of our two scriptures this morning.
We know God has not given up on creation because the background for both stories remind us that God is ever present, acting as a general contractor on God’s creation renovation project. The background of the Ezekiel creation renovation project is that God’s glory has returned to Jerusalem. One of the great images of Ezekiel is that the glory of God, meaning the presence of God, traveled with the people into exile in Babylon. Even though the Temple was destroyed and their nation devastated because the people had trashed it, God did not leave them. God went with them and brought them back. The marvelous images of a new creation are possible because of God’s presence. In the same way, the background of the Revelation story is that Jesus has returned and brought with him a renewed heaven and earth. The story in fact makes reference to this when it speaks of throne of God and of the lamb being present in the midst of the people. We know God has not given up because God is ever present and at work in the world.
We know God has not given up because God has given us a blueprint on what this renovated creation is going to look like; a description we find in these two stories. The first part of the blueprint is that creation will be a place of peace. Each of them speak of healing. In Ezekiel it is personal healing; healing from pain, disease and death. It is a reversal of the death that had come from Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden. In Revelation this concept has been expanded to include the healing of the nations. This refers to universal peace, in which there is no more war or conflict. The second part of this blueprint has to do with all people having enough; enough to eat and enough to drink. Ezekiel offers us an image or clean water flowing, fishing nets full, fruit hanging from trees and marshes that produce salt for all. It is a world of abundance that is accessible to all.
We know God has not given up because God promises that the work will be completed. This is probably for many of us the most difficult aspect of these stories. It may be the most difficult because there are moments when this creation appears to be coming apart more than it is being put together. When the KKK and white supremacists once again march in our cities. When we are once again faced with the possibility of nuclear war. When we are faced once again with mass migrations of people fleeing war and starvation. When we are faced with these recurring reminders of the fallenness of creation we wonder if it will ever end. We may feel like members of my former congregation who in the middle of their home renovation had the house flooded. They wondered if it would ever be done. But both of our stories are promises that there will be an end. They are promises that God’s blueprint will become a reality. So, the question is, what does this mean for us?
First it means that we are to be a people of hope. In the face of hopelessness and despair, we are to be those who believe that God is indeed present and at work in the world. We are to be those who, both individually and collectively, do not give up even in the face of what appear to be recurring and intractable problems. We are to be in fact, a community of hope into which people can arrive in fear and leave in courage. We are, once again, to be Pollyannas who have a seemingly unreasonable optimism in the face of overwhelming odds. Second, we are to continue our work as God’s subcontractors. For whatever reason, God has chosen to do most of this restoration work through us. Just as a general contractor organizes and hires sub-contractors, God has called us to be those on the ground tearing down the old death-dealing ways of the world and installing the new life-giving ways.
Now, a word about Charlottesville. For many people, what happened there seemed to have come out of the blue. It shocked us. But it shouldn’t have. In the last six months there are have been more than one-thousand, yes one thousand incidents of racial and anti-Semitic intimidation reported in the United States. Some even at Seaholm high school. Let’s be clear this morning that racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and intolerance have always been with us. They have not been wished or washed away. Like wood rot, fed by the slow drip, drip, drip of fear which turns to hate, they can undermine the structure of nations, churches and communities. Our task as subcontractors is to peel away their veneer of acceptability and shine on them the light of the love of God in Jesus Christ. It is to proclaim to all that every human being is a child of God; beloved as those created in the image of God. It is to proclaim that we are all one human family, one community intended to live together in this new creation in which there is peace and enough. It is to never be afraid but to courageously speak the truth of this love, because my friends, only love conquers hate. Only love conquers prejudice. Only love conquers bigotry. It is to shine this love in our homes, in our places of work, and in our neighborhoods. Love is the light that the darkness cannot overcome.
My challenge to you this morning comes from the end of a letter to the Dr. Al Timm, the Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of Detroit ( dated August 17, 2017):
So, I challenge you and me, to do this work of being subcontractors of the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Rev. Joanne Blair
August 13, 2017
Today we read from one of Paul’s prison letters, and the church in Philippi was Paul’s first church in Europe. The city of Philippi was a Roman colony and the people were Roman citizens, although most of its inhabitants would actually have been Greek. Thus, the converts to whom Paul is writing would virtually all have been Gentiles. Just previous to where we come in today, Paul has written that some people are spreading the gospel for their own gain and to make his situation more dire; but that regardless of their motives, he still rejoices, for the gospel is being spread either way.
I read an article this week called, “21 Cliché Inspirational Quotes That Everyone Needs to Stop Using Immediately” … And, of course, I read it after I had turned in the title for my sermon! Though my title wasn’t on the list, it certainly could have been. Some quotes from the list:
And the list went on… Well, I can’t help it… I like cliché inspirational quotes!
Sometimes we need something simple and cutesy, yet at the same time rather profound, to hang our struggles upon and help keep us on course.
Life isn’t easy. And we are called as Christians to stand up against those things which contradict the gospel, and we are called to endure those things which may ultimately lead to the furthering of the kingdom… and bring us in closer unity with Christ.
Last week John talked about Pollyanna, and how Pollyanna has come to mean something that is “unreasonable or illogically optimistic.” We used to sometimes tease my mother and call her “Pollyanna”. And she didn’t like it. I would ask her, “What’s the problem, that your epitaph will say ‘She was too positive? She was too nice?’” Not a bad legacy.
This is where we are with Paul and his talk of rejoicing in the face of possible death. It seems rather “Pollyannaish”, but is actually the foundation of being rooted in Christ. As he said in a different letter to the Romans, “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” What matters to Paul is that no matter what happens to him, whether he lives or dies, Christ is exalted. And that is what should matter most to us.
No one looks forward to suffering. Those of us here today are fortunate that we are free to believe, and proclaim that belief, in Jesus the Christ. Not everyone has that freedom. Paul is addressing that in his letter, and encouraging those who suffer on behalf of the gospel that they are united with Christ.
Yes, we are fortunate that we here today do not have that struggle. But the world, our nation, and our individual lives are filled with suffering. I, personally, don’t enjoy suffering and I don’t enjoy seeing others suffer. And I don’t think of suffering itself as a privilege.
The privilege, is in knowing Christ. The privilege, is in trusting that Christ is present right there amid our suffering. There is joy in knowing that God is at work in the very midst of our suffering. But we often can’t realize that at the time.
I often distinguish between happiness and joy, as it is so crucial to our understanding of ourselves and our relationship with God. Happiness is a circumstantial feeling and brought about by external triggers. Joy is an internal state of being that comes from knowing who, and whose, we are. While we may not always feel happy, if we are in relationship with Christ, if we believe the good news, we will always have joy.
Paul tells the Philippians and tells us to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” We are to live our lives first and foremost as citizens of the kingdom of God and we are granted the privilege of sharing in the redemptive work of Christ.
How do we do that? By loving God and loving our neighbor. Not as a cheesy greeting card saying or a cliché inspirational quote, but as a way of life, with the very essence of our being. By extending ourselves to others and by hanging on tightly to God- and each other- during our own struggles, suffering and fear. By trusting that God is always at work, for God does some of God’s best work in the worst of places and the worst of times.
Every day is an opportunity to live in the love of God and live out the gospel of Jesus Christ. And this is why Paul was able to rejoice. Though he was a Roman prisoner, he was freer than many of us. Freedom is not so much about our physical location as it is about our spiritual location. It is not so much about our circumstances as it is about our being.
There are prisons of society, of the body, of the mind… and Paul reminds us in his letter to the Philippians that we are called to freedom through a relationship with Jesus Christ. That we are called to proclaim the good news with our words, our actions, and with our very being.
We do live in very uncertain times. Tensions are high not only among nations, but within our own nation, and it just seems overwhelming. Yet we are not helpless. Every day we have the privilege of belonging to Christ, of rooting ourselves in that foundation, and of being a part of the gospel message. What could be better?
There may be suffering. There may be pain. There may be unhappiness. There may be disagreements. But there will also be rejoicing and unbridled joy. Joy in joining ourselves to the One above all others, who calls us to care, share, and love each other.
Any day we attach ourselves to Christ and strive to live out the gospel is a good day. And so we rejoice.
And today? Well, to add to the list of clichés: “It’s a good day for a good day.” Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
August 6, 2017
Ezekiel 37:1-14; 1 John 3:1-3
It was a good news/bad news article. Every week I received a curated set of religious articles from Duke Divinity School. This article had both good news and bad news. The good news was that a large group of evangelical leaders had signed a letter to congress asking them to push forward with their efforts at sentencing reforms. They believed that the way men and women are sentenced today, especially for minor drug possession, does more harm than good; that it tears apart lives and families. The bad news was that a recent survey of church going Christians, meaning that they had attended church at least two times in the past month, showed that 62% of them believed that people ought to receive harsher sentences than they deserve…let me repeat that…ought to receive harsher sentences than they deserve in order to keep people from committing the same crime. I have to say I was taken aback by the second part of the article more than the first. But then I remembered the Pollyanna effect and it all made sense.
What is the Pollyanna Effect you ask? Well it is something that I made up but here is how it works. First, we need to remember the book and movie Pollyanna. They are about a young girl who has an incredibly positive outlook on life. Regardless of what happens to her she believes that there can be a positive outcome; sort of like a female Joel Osteen. In the Disney movie, she is played by a very cute Haley Mills. What I remember most about the movie is her interaction with the pastor. She is taken to church by her aunt who goes to what is obviously a Calvinist church where the only sermon topic is judgment. At one point, she asks the minister why he doesn’t preach more about love. At first, he dismisses her, but as in all good movies he comes around and talks about love. That however is not the Pollyanna Effect. The Pollyanna Effect is the manner in which the movie was received. Women and girls went to see it. Men and boys did not. Even Disney himself said it was too saccharine…too nice and perhaps he should not have made it. And so, Pollyanna has come to mean something that is “unreasonably or illogically optimistic”; meaning something such as showing leniency in sentencing rather giving people harsher sentences than they deserve or putting drug users in rehab rather than in jail. After all this is real world and not a Pollyannaish one.
If that is the case however, I think that someone should tell God because that is the way God works in the world. God believes in that unreasonably and illogically optimistic idea that human beings are redeemable through love and that all judgment ought to be redemptive. We can see this in our Ezekiel text this morning. To set the scene, Ezekiel is writing to the Jewish people who are in exile in Babylon. They are there because they had chosen to ignore God’s call to right living; to caring for widows, orphans and the poor. They are there because they believed more in military might than trusting God. In their despair, believing themselves to be dead as a people; believing that God had not only judged them but had abandoned them, Ezekiel is reminded that God’s judgment is always redemptive. The dry bones of the people will again live. God will grant them new lives and new opportunities. God did not judge them and throw away the key. God judged them to save them and through them save the world. In a sense this is the same story as this table (the communion table). God’s work in Jesus, his receiving our judgment, the world’s judgement was done to redeem us and to redeem the world. So, someone ought to tell God that this kind of redemptive love won’t work.
Someone ought to tell Tim Dunn. Who is Tim Dunn? Well I am glad you asked. Tim Dunn is an ultra-conservative oil-man in Texas who has used his wealth to try to push the Texas legislature further to the right…which I did not think was possible. But in 2004 he contacted Governor Rick Perry’s chief of staff and said, “Conservatives are wrong on crime. Scripture would not call us to build prisons and forget people.” On his personal website, he wrote that “nonviolent crimes should be recompensed in a way that gets people back into the work force and adding to communities as quickly as possible,” and that Texas should “focus on restoring victims and communities damaged by crime.” He then encouraged Perry’s staff to do something about it. Over the past 12 years, at the urging to both liberals and conservatives, Texas has expanded drug treatment availability, created drug courts, veteran’s courts, and mental health courts. They have changed the way parole violators are dealt with and in some cases, are allowing people to wipe out their conviction records. All of this, again supported by liberals and conservatives, has seen incarceration drop by 17 percent, juvenile incarceration drop by 75 percent and three prisons closed…all the while watching the crime rate drop by 27 percent. Someone ought to tell Texas that this Pollyanna approach will not work.
You and I worship the God who is about redemptive love. We follow a Jesus who would not build prisons and forget about people. The challenge for us is not to forget about those trapped in a justice system that believes redemptive justice is Pollyannaish. So, this is your annual reminder to call your senators and representatives on all levels to work for sentencing reforms. The bills I talked about last year still have not been allowed to come to the floor for debate despite their bi-partisan support and the evidence that they work to redeem lives.
My challenge to you then is this, to once again write letters, send emails and make phone calls in order that we act as Pollyannas for Jesus, believing that redemption is possible.